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Disaster Assistance Self-Study - Psychological Reactions

Psychological Reactions to Major Disasters

Many of the feelings associated with trauma and disasters can last weeks, or even months and years. Sometimes, victims don’t react until months later. Be aware of this when working with people who have been through a traumatic event.

Common feelings include:

  • Irritability or anger.
  • Fatigue or exhaustion, low energy level.
  • Loss of appetite or conversely, an inordinate increase in appetite.
  • Nightmares and/or recurring recollections of the traumatic events.
  • Sadness or fear.
  • Headaches, nausea, stomachaches, sore muscles.
  • Lack of concentration, confusion.
  • Increased alcohol, tobacco, or drug consumption.
  • Fear of being alone.
  • Feeling vulnerable or a loss of control.
  • Difficulty making decisions.
  • Fear of leaving home or loved ones.
  • Guilt feelings that others are worse off.
  • Intermittently feeling excited and alive or empty and depressed; mood swings.
  • Feeling of numbness, detachment or estrangement from self and others.
  • Desire to abandon responsibilities; to run away.
  • Exaggerated startle response, hyper-vigilance.
  • Difficulty in communicating.

Knowledge Check

Which of the following is a common psychological reaction to a major disaster?

A. Elation or euphoria
B. Normal startle response
C.  Calm contentment
D.  Fear of being alone    


How to Help Yourself

  • Ask for help with tasks– remember that your adrenalin is at a high level.
  • Eat properly – stay away from junk food, sugar, alcohol and caffeine.
  • Do physical exercise and relaxation exercises.
  • Get a lot of rest.
  • Prepare for future emergencies to help lessen feelings of helplessness.
  • Try to normalize your routine as much as possible.
  • Write or draw about your experience.
  • See a counselor for individual sessions if you are having serious problems adjusting.
  • Join a support group if you have a major loss, or are having trouble adjusting.
  • Talk to other people about your experiences, reactions and feelings.
  • Go slowly. Don’t rush. Take it easy.
  • Give yourself extra time for tasks. You may have trouble concentrating.

How to Help Others

  • Talk calmly. Move slowly. Use very little body language.
  • Communicate confidence in yourself and concern for the victim.
  • Encourage the person to speak freely about whatever is on their mind.
  • Be patient with the person. Be willing to say nothing.
  • Interrupt as little as possible while the victim is talking.
  • Practice "Active Listening"
  • Do not argue with the person and do not impose your ideas on him/her. You are there to help him/her find their own solutions.
  • Do not attempt to be all things to all people.
  • Tell the survivor how you feel. Let them know you are sorry they have been hurt.
  • Do not attempt to reassure the survivor that everything will be OK. Everything is not OK.
  • Do not attempt to impose your explanation of why this has happened to the survivor.
  • Do not tell the victim that you know how he or she feels. You don’t. Each person reacts differently to a situation.
  • Don’t be afraid to encourage a victim to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help yourself if the stress of working with victims becomes overwhelming.
  • Let others heal and cope at their pace. Remember that you are healing at your own pace, too.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask how someone is doing. If they want to talk, listen. You don’t want to talk, just let them know that you’re there, and that you care. You can’t make it better, and you don’t need to try.

Knowledge Check

Many of the feelings associated with a disaster can last weeks, months or even years. (True or False)


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